BRM V16: Nigel Roebuck's F1 Legends

Furiously loud and ludicrously powerful, the BRM V16 one of the silliest racing cars ever conceived, writes Nigel Roebuck

When I was a kid, someone gave me an EP – remember them? – of the BRM V16 on full noise. I once told Stirling Moss about it. “I’m surprised,” he said, “that it ran long enough to fill an EP.” It was a fair point.

To me, that is all the BRM V16 has ever been a noise. And while, granted, its exhaust note is arresting, it doesn’t approach the cultured eight-cylinder scream of an Alfa Romeo 158, the car at which it was vainly aimed. Shakespeare’s line from Macbeth, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” encapsulates British Racing Motors in the early fifties. To me, the BRM V16 has always seemed one of the silliest racing cars ever conceived. Power it had in plenty, perhaps as much as 600bhp at 12,000rpm, but it never gave it for very long, and, when it did, it gave it in such a way as to make the car virtually undriveable. Unlike the Roots-type blower used by Alfa Romeo, which peaked and then helpfully tailed off, the Rolls-Royce centrifugal supercharging used by BRM kept on coming.

For the wartime aero engines for which it had been developed, that was fine, for they ran at virtually constant speeds. For a racing car it was a rather different matter. The power increased as the revs did. Add in the primitive tyres of the time, and wheelspin was a way of life in the V16. The more the wheelspin, the higher the revs, the more the power, the more the wheelspin, the higher…, and so on.

“The V16 was a thoroughly nasty car,” said Moss. “The brakes were OK, the acceleration was incredible until you broke traction but everything else I hated, particularly the steering and the driving position. Handling? I don’t remember it having any…”

Some, though, were dewy-eyed about the car, and none more so than its father, Raymond Mays. Twenty years ago, not long before his death, we discussed the life and times of his company and it was clear that, above all the successes which later came BRM’s way, the V16 remained uppermost in his affections.

It was launched shortly before Christmas in 1949. At the Folkingham Aerodrome, near Bourne, Mays briefly demonstrated the car, and its sound sent all present into rapture. Britain, Fleet Street asserted next day, had a world-beater on its hands.

In many ways, this was the high point of the V16’s career. Before it finally disappeared from competition in 1955, no racing car promised more, nor delivered less. Mays, though, remembered it only with reverence. “The V16 was an awe-inspiring car to drive, particularly in the early days, when the power came in rather late, at about 9900 revs with a bang!

“Before we went to Albi in ’53, I drove Fangio’s car at Folkingham Aerodrome and I had it up to 190mph on the 2000-yard runway. It was quite frightening, because you could re-spin the wheels at 9800 in fourth gear. I reached 11,800, with a high gear in…”

You couldn’t but smile at Mays’s rose-tinted memories, but it seemed never to cross his mind that a racing driver wouldn’t actually want a car which could spin its wheels in fourth. When I mentioned Moss’s distaste for the V16, Ray was airily dismissive: “Well, Stirling was not yet at his peak when he drove it. Without any doubt, the most impressive driver we ever had was Fangio.” I asked why. “Oh, because he was the only man who didn’t complain about the car. He said it was a monster, but he would master it. Fangio never blamed his car; and that’s one of the reasons why he stands in a class by himself.”

From the archive

At the end of 1951, the Formula One for which the V16 had been built 4.5-litres unsupercharged, 1.5-litres supercharged was abandoned. By that time the BRMs had competed in precisely three Grands Prix, with a singular lack of success.

The V16 had made its debut at the Silverstone International Trophy the year before. Having missed practice car unready Raymond Sommer was nevertheless permitted to start. Down went the flag, whereupon the BRM lurched forward a few inches, then stopped, transmission broken.

Mays found the crowd’s response hurtful. “There was a BRM Supporters Club, and the members had put a lot of money in it. But when the car was pushed back into the paddock, some people very impolitely threw pennies in the seat. Really rather disgusting. If they’d only known what we’d gone through to get that car there…”

Well, yes, but then they had turned up in the hope of seeing the BRM at last show something. By 1952 it was eligible only for Formule Libre events and the very occasional race run for the old Formula 1. One such was at Albi, where Fangio and Gonzales dominated until they retired. Victory went to journeyman racer Louis Rosier and his ancient Ferrari.

BRM returned there in 1953, with Ken Wharton backing up the two Argentines. The weekend was etched in Mays’s mind. “It was two days before the Coronation, and we were determined to show how those cars could go. It meant the world to us…

“They virtually staged the race for us, you know, the Albi authorities. They were always friendly towards England, and they said they’d get Alfa Romeo to bring the 158s out of retirement, and persuade Ferrari to bring his 4.5-litre car. Here was our one chance of showing that we’d built a car capable of beating the cars in the formula for which it was intended.” I don’t believe Ray saw any irony in his own words.

“At the last moment Alfa decided not to come, which disappointed us, but we felt that if we could beat Ferrari, that would be good enough. Then the organising club said they had an awful blow for us: Ferrari would , after all, not be sending his car, for Alberto Ascari.

“I said, ‘Well, this is absolutely dreadful. If we win against what’s left, everyone will call it a hollow victory. For heaven’s sake, do something!’ They offered Ferrari more starting money and he came like a flash…”

Towards the end of practice. Ascari beat Fangio’s time, whereupon Juan Manuel went out again. “He knocked Ascari’s time sideways, of course. Typically Fangio. And the whole grandstand got up and cheered. It was a very uplifting moment for me.”

By the end of that lap, though, Fangio detected a misfire, and, as Mays admitted, “When you got a misfire on the V16, it could have been 1001 things.. .We worked through the night, and at 3.30am it was decided that I would test the car. At that time of the day early dawn there were horses and carts about, farmers coming out of gates, but on this long straight road I had the thing up to 180, and I scared myself stiff”

How wide was the road? I asked. “Narrow,” said Mays. “Narrow.” Whatever the problem, it was now cured, and in the heat Fangio was unopposed, once Ascari had retired. Albi, over five miles in length, was an open road circuit, its back leg a two mile, poplar-lined straight, both narrow and highly cambered. “Believe it or not, Fangio and Ascari overtook and re-overtook each other down there, at around 190mph!”

The final should have been a cakewalk for the V16s, but Fangio, leading, had a tyre failure, his car suffering consequent and irreparable hub damage, and Wharton had an enormous accident. “That was dreadful,” Mays recalled. “He was lucky to get away with it, being thrown into a ditch, then seeing the car roll over three times, and land back on the circuit. Somehow he was almost unhurt.” As for Gonzales, he finished second, after losing the lead when a rear tyre failed. The winner? Monsieur Rosier and his Ferrari, proceeding at a leisurely pace, as ever.

Mays clearly remembered Albi ’53 as a day of redemption for the V16s, and they certainly gave a glimpse of what might have been. “It was the tyres, you see. In fairness to Dunlop, they’d never been able to test at the kind of speeds the cars were reaching.” It didn’t seem the moment to suggest that the V16’s ludicrous power curve’ might have had something to do with it, too.